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Essays: Land of Debates


Photo: This really doesn't have anything to do with the post. Desperate times ask for random photos. I like photos.

As promised, I am back to give my report on Lucy Calkin's recommendations on teaching writers to live and write like essayists. So, jump on to the land of debates. Do we say down with the hamburger model and five sentence paragraphs or follow the pattern of real-life essays that vaguely resembles the "school way"? Come with me as I meander my thoughts on writing essays. As an added bonus, I have added the remaining portion of my notes taken during the conference.

The remaining notes can be downloaded here:

Download Calkins_notes

But I Don't See it in the Real World...

I decided to write a separate post from my conference with Calkins because I personally struggled with this when I started the unit in January. I just couldn't balance the line of two philosophies. I felt, somehow, comforted to know the Calkins sent her son to a private tutor just to help him write an essay for college entrance. This is Lucy Calkins! Who better to teach you how to write essays? To hear that she sought additional help for her son translated one message to me: It's not easy stuff. Here are the two philosophies of thought:

Philosophy Plan A: You teach essays following a pretty strict formula. This is supported by the "hamburger model". If you are not familiar with this, the bun becomes the introduction with your thesis statement, the fillings inside (meat, lettuce, tomato) each stand for a paragraph and supporting details, the bottom bun stands for the conclusion. Supporting this form of essay writing usually requires five sentences per paragraph. To be honest, it's pretty bland and boring. It's also, according to Katie Wood Ray, impossible to find a published essay that follows this format. Literally.


Photo: Graphic organizer showing the hamburger model. Not exactly high on my list of essay strategies or formats. Photos from Montgomery Schools in MD.

Philosophy Plan B: You look at various essays and speak around that topic, supporting your thesis statement like the famous essayists of our time have. The format ranges widely, but does start with a thesis statement and follows with a series of ideas, thoughts, and facts to support that statement.

This is a little harder to teach...

The Case for the School Way

You can't get around it. The school version essay is here to stay. You may not find it anywhere else, but everything from high school exams and college entrance applications will require knowledge of this very particular essay format. My school way and real way debate becomes a question of not preparing my kids for school. Calkins argues that we have to take the school way into consideration, although she states that many of her colleagues disagree with her.

Before the conference, I had tried teaching "both" ways as a strategy. Using the hamburger approach I tried giving it variety by using information I found in an Instructor magazine (January issue). There were many suggestions on helping students move away from formula essays that required little thought and work. I thought the article did a fine job of finding a middle ground compromise with multiple formats used to write essays. One strategy I particulary enjoyed was the comedian approach. The suggestion was to list your supporting details to your thesis statement on scratch paper. Rate your supporting details from weakest to strongest. Start with your weakest claim and end with a bang using your strongest supporting detail (before writing a conclusion).

But then the real way tugged at my heart. I, of course, used Calkin's approach and resources, but I also used my literacy friend, Katie Wood Ray. Her book, Study Driven, had a few unique essays for us to read and discuss (one on Harry Potter being overrated and another on summer activities and how we should do nothing due to our busy lives are two I remember). As Calkins writes in her essay unit, it's a challenge to find an essay anthology of kid's essays at Barnes and Nobles.

Essay Tips

  • Find the January issue of Instructor magazine under Scholastic. It discusses this very battle of how to teach writers how to write essays. It tries to strike a balance between the two philosophies mentioned here. It also seems to be written with parents in mind...something you could share with family members.

  •  Calkins states that students can possibly write up to 8 essays in one month. With several essays written, you have time to try out different essay formats.

  • The beginning thesis statement should be clean and clear. You can imagine or literally add the word because (not for example) to your statement.

  • She said it is okay to learn how to say the same thing over and over again in a different way to get your message across. Oh, memories of last minute college papers comes to my head on that comment. Okay, and a few exams too.

  • Borrow or purchase the essay book in the U of S. It is invaluable. Suggestions such as to how to teach your students to look at the world like an essayist are important foundations to helping students create topics to write about (e.g. watch the news and I am sure you can think of several topics to write an essay about). Simply having students create essay topics is not enough support; you have to teach them how to approach meaningful concerns in their life. Otherwise, you will be left with some pretty low-level or familiar essay topics in your room.

  • At about day 5 of writing, you have to ask students how they can lift the level of writing. This comes through elaboration. It may sound like this, "Look over your writing from the past few sessions. Star an idea that matters to you." From here, you can pair students up with their writing partners using a series of thought prompts to deepen the essay. Here are some of the sayings Calkins recommends on deepening thoughts on essay topics:

~ In other words...

~ furthermore...

~ and the surprising thing about this is...

~ what's important about that is...

~ that is...

~ as I am saying this, I am beginning to realize...

  • Wording like "for example" is lower-level support. For example is safe.

  • Concluding paragraph- You can go for the hallmark card moment. How will/is your life changed? Conclusions at this level can often follow a format of sayings. This includes:

~ Some people...

~ I've come to believe...

~ And so...

So, What Does it All Boil Down To?

I left with many questions about the way I teach future essayists. There is no clear "right" way to teach this genre. If there was, I would throw that smelly hamburger in the trash can. Forever. But even I came to the conclusion that the school way is also here to stay, and I want to prepare my students for following this format that will show up time and time again.

What do you think? I am leaving a lot of essay information out from the U of S books. This post is additional information shared at her conference.

Anchor Charts MIA

For some reason I can't find my collection of anchor charts for this unit. I will post them here when I find them.

To learn more about our class, visit us here.


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essay writing

It's always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained! I'm sure you had fun writing this article. Excellent entry! I'm been looking for topics as interesting as this. Looking forward to your next post.


Hey Carrie,

Your comment reminded me of something else that was recommended by Lucy. She said we should be teaching them to write nonfiction through our content areas. So, if you have a problem solution article on a science concept you are learning, you can break down the organization of headings and subheadings with the class. I think stressing how nonfiction is written, in format, will help ease the essay unit as well.

And I am totally with you on the traditional essay. I went in being very much against it, but she did make a good argument to at least introduce it. That is what I did. From there, it was just another strategy to try out.

And finally, I have had three authors post on the blog (Debra Frasier, Sara Bennett, and now Lucy Calkins), but I had to look into my account and check the IP address and info. before I could believe her son had forwarded her this blog. All seemed to check out, so I am pretty happy to have her respond.

Off to church...


Carrie Tenebrini

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the Essay U of S. We tried it for the first time this year and it was a daunting task to be sure! But I think it is so valuable because it teaches kids to think about big ideas and then clarify their thinking- the essence of all communication!

One thing I would like to try in the future, well in advance of the Essay U of S, is to chart whole class conversations in boxes and bullets format so that kids begin to understand the difference between the idea and the support. I think if we did this in class for several months before the Essay unit, that when we got there in Writing, they would already have some previous experience with the structure and could apply it to writing more easily.

I struggle with the idea of the hamburger too. I think that teaching kids to have an idea, support it in many ways until they have supported it enough is the key to thinking about structure in an essay. Later if they need to write a 5 paragraph essay (!), they can adapt to that structure. But I think teaching them that structure first is dangerous because then it is harder for them to think outside it later.

I enjoy your blog and I think it is so cool that LC herself commented back to you! How special!

Thanks again!




We use science kits that are provided by Carolina Biological Supply Company. It comes with 15 or so lessons to complete with your class. We used about 10-11 lessons in our room from the kit's book. The electricity kit is nothing short of excellent. When my partner coach from Science Olympiad held a session on electricity she was very surprised to see how fast my students were with everything, including the use of electricity symbols. As a result, one of my students was selected to compete in this event.

I'll see if I can dig up the electricity lesson plans this weekend. I'll post them on the blog post if I can.



Sara Valladolid

Mrs. Bunyi

First and foremost I'd like to congratulate you, on your wonderful website. It is obvious how hard you work to provide your students with a quality education.

Secondly, I came across your website through Scholastic and specifically your electricity unit caught my attention. I was wondering if you would share your resources for your unit. Is it a specific book of reproducibles?

I would greatly appreciate your response. Thank you.

Sara Valladolid
4th Grade Teacher
Parkview Elementary

Comments are closed. Please see Classroom Solutions, our new blog for the 2009-2010 school year. And stay tuned for Teaching Matters with Angela Bunyi and Beth Newingham.

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